Occult Paris

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Occult Paris: The Lost Magic of the Belle Époque [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Tobias Churton.

Churton Occult Paris

Tobias Churton’s Occult Paris is an impressively wide-ranging yet detailed account of the French occult revival, treating developments in art movements, philosophy, politics, religion, and secret societies. Although the book’s scope is much larger, it takes for a principal guide and perspective the memoir Les Compangnons de la Hiérophanie by Victor-Émile Michelet (1861-1938). Personalities central to the history in question include Lady Caithness, Stanislas de Guatia, Joséphin Péladan, Erik Satie, Gerard “Papus” Encausse, Jules Doinel, and many others.

Those interested in the history of esoteric movements will appreciate the focus on the Kabbalistic Rose-Croix (R+C+K), its competing Catholic Rose-Croix Order (R+C+C+), the Gnostic Church and its offspring, and the Martinist Order, all of which are treated as central topics with a wealth of detail not easily accessed in other English-language publications. In addition, Churton supplies a Paris-centric perspective on the Victorian Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and information on the Parisian manifestations of the Antient & Primitive Rite with connections to the early Ordo Templi Orientis.

I feel a special responsibility to recommend this book to readers concerned with the early history of the Église Gnostique, for its very full accounting of the context of those developments. As regards the actual founding of the church, Churton relies chiefly on Doinel’s own account transmitted by the Cathar revivalist and onetime Église Gnostique bishop Déodat Roché (1877-1978), and provides a more coherent and detailed picture than I have encountered elsewhere.

The book is amply illustrated with black-and-white figures throughout, plus a generous set of color plates. Most of the figures are portraits of key individuals, and while these usually give the dates of the subject’s life, they only rarely give the date of the portrait, leaving the reader sometimes a little confused about whether they accurately represent that person at the time treated in the neighboring text.

At numerous points I found Churton’s prose a little off-putting in its chattiness, but even when the text seemed digressive it had valuable knowledge to offer. I read a borrowed copy of this book, but I will seriously consider acquiring my own, because I don’t doubt its value as a continuing reference in future study.